Although it debuted to high hopes, Xserve never lived up to its potential.
The Xserve, which Apple officially put to pasture this week,
proved to be another example of the company's on-again-but-mostly-off
commitment to large scale, enterprise-class computing. It's a market where the
company's track record has been a series of disappointments. But for a while, at
least, Xserve seemed to have changed Apple's luck.
Depending on how you do the math, this is Apple's third or
fourth failed attempt at establishing a server platform for enterprise
first failure, the Macintosh Office of the mid-1980s, managed to give
LaserWriter and AppleTalk, but never delivered the file server hardware
the heart of that era's networking implementations. The Apple Workgroup
of the mid-to-late 1990s don't really figure in my reckoning, because
hardware was a Quadra, Centris or Power Mac workstation running MacOS
with a few server-like add-ons and larger hard drives; they were a
at best. The AIX-based Apple Network Server was an ambitious reworking
Power Macintosh 9500 but came at time when Apple was assumed to be
the drain and sold poorly.
Apple introduced the 1U rack-mountable Xserve in 2002,
returning to a market segment it had abandoned in 1996, following the
complete failure of the Apple Network Server to establish itself. Xserve, as I
wrote at the time in another publication, put Apple back on the list of serious
server manufacturers. Although the fans of the first Xserve were deafening, and
I wasn't terribly excited about the integration of the server's case with the
rack-mounting hardware, I saw a great deal of potential in the combination of hardware
and Mac OS X.
When Apple backed up its enterprise play in 2003 by adding
the Xserve RAID to its lineup, I was again impressed. Although the RAID unit
was best suited for shops that already had some experience with Fiber Channel
networking, it was easy to set up and manage, and was supported by Apple with
both Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Windows Server 2003.
Apple pitched the Xserve to academia as well as the industry,
with the stripped-down Xserve Cluster Node being aimed specifically at
university environments. But outside of some very limited deployments in the
film and video production industries and some HPC experiments, the world at
large never fell for the hardware to the same degree that many of us in the
Apple continued to refresh the Xserve hardware specs from
one year to the next, by moving from PowerPC G4 processors to the G5, then
transitioning to Intel Xeon CPUs from the Woodcrest, then Harpertown and
ultimately, the Gainestown series. But when Apple discontinued the Xserve RAID in
2008, the first bell rang for me, and I spent much of this year wondering if
there was one more Xserve in the works.
The company's not completely abandoning the server market: It will
continue to offer the Mac Mini Server and will support Mac OS X Server
on Mac Pros. What remains a question is the future of Mac OS X Server;
month's sneak peek at Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" didn't say a word about any
for a server version of the OS.
Will Apple ever again try to play in the "Big Iron" arena? I
kind of doubt it; in part because the market for enterprise-class hardware is
far smaller than the consumer space, which the company seems to own for the
foreseeable future. But I wonder if the knowledge that Apple CEO Steve Jobs' crew has failed once
again in the server market might encourage him to have another
go at it someday.